Skip to main content

At Woodlawn Cemetery, Remembering Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, The Socialite and the Suffragette

Belmont Memorial Chapel, constructed 1910, The Woodlawn Cemetery,
final resting place for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933), socialite and suffragette,
and her second husband, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858-1908)

The Socialite

Alva E. Belmont
1911
As a woman who amassed a great personal fortune following her marriages to two of the Gilded Age's wealthiest men, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933) embodied many of the stereotypes of a social climber, an overly ambitious type bent on crashing the social glass ceilings of New York's Gilded Age society. Quite successful in her efforts, her life resembles one of those established and conceited society women in a novel by Edith Wharton or Henry James. Yet, after her second husband, Oliver, died in 1908, Alva's story takes a different turn, although elements of her domineering personality did not.

Alva Smith was born January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama to a moderately wealthy family. Before the Civil War, Alva's father moved the family to New York. Like many of her Gilded Age privileged peers, Alva made the grand tour of Europe and summered with her family in Newport. She attended a private boarding school in France. In 1875, Alva made her most advantageous social move when she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, the grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. The fortunate young couple had three children, and Alva kept herself busy ordering around her children and raising the level of their social visibility.

After twenty years of marriage, Alva divorced her husband on grounds of adultery. The generous financial settlement, in addition to a few million dollars in cash, included many of their estates. She spent much of her adult life co-designing and commissioning enormous houses, often with Richard Morris Hunt and subsequently with the architect's sons, including the Vanderbilt mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue (demolished) and the Marble Palace in Newport. After the 1895 divorce, at her Newport mansion, she threw one of the era's most lavish parties in honor of the engagement of her beautiful daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough. Alva planned the whole match, making her unwilling daughter a pawn for her own ambitions. The Duke got two million dollars for his role in this marriage power play.

On January 11, 1896, less than a year after obtaining her divorce, Alva married her next-door neighbor and ex-husband's best friend, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858–1908). Oliver, the son of a Rothschild financier and a racehorse owner (yes, the Belmont Stakes is named for August Belmont, Sr.), became the beneficiary of an enormous inheritance upon his father's death. In addition to Alva's Marble House, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and Oliver's own French Renaissance mansion called Belcourt, both in Newport, the couple had yet a third mansion built for them, Brookholt, in East Meadow, Long Island in 1897. While the Newport houses are still extant and are operated as museums, the Brookholt property was demolished in the 1930s.

Belmont Memorial Chapel, Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx



Among the couple's many fine houses is their final resting place in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Oliver died on June 10, 1908 after a severe bout of appendicitis, and Alva commissioned the mausoleum as a lasting memorial for both of them. Constructed as a replica of the chapel of Saint-Hubert at Amboise in France's Loire Valley, and notably the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci, the chapel is remarkable in its detail. Like the French original, almost exactly so, the 1910 chapel is abundantly decorated with references to Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. A carving of a stag above the front door serves as the focal point, and the motif of antlers is carried all the way up the steeple. The finest artisans of the day recreated the French chapel for this mausoleum in the Bronx.

Life and Death of the Suffragette

Alva's funeral at the chapel.
Women rights activists carrying banners
 flank the entrance to the chapel.
After the death of Oliver, Alva became a vigorous leader of labor and women's causes. In 1909 she bankrolled and organized enormous rallies on behalf of the striking shirtwaist workers, and she insisted that labor's plight must be intertwined with the campaign for women's voting rights. She held feminist organizing sessions at her lavish home in Newport, and she sponsored the 1914 speaking tour of English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst.

Alva became an active member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, and she founded the Political Equality League, a local New York suffrage organization. In 1921 she was elected the President of the National Woman's Party. In 1929 she purchased a house in Washington, DC to serve as the organization's headquarters. Now known as the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, the building on Capitol Hill houses a museum dedicated to the history of women's suffrage and the equal rights movement.

For most years of the 1920s until her death in 1933, Alva lived in Paris, maintaining several homes there. She left detailed instructions for her funeral, handing them over to friend and fellow activist Alice Paul to pass on to her New York attorney. When she died, her children accompanied the body to New York for services at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. As she directed, a guard of two members of the National Woman's Party watched over the body in the chapel at the church where she rested in state for two days. Women's rights activists arrived from all over the country for the Sunday funeral. Feminist honorary pallbearers, carrying purple, white, and gold banners, accompanied the procession of her coffin into the church. The services concluded with the same feminist guard on the steps of the Belmont chapel in Woodlawn.

Maintaining the Belmont Chapel

Susan Olsen, Woodlawn Cemetery's historian, met me at the chapel. She pushed open the heavy doors of the chapel, and we walked inside. Oliver is interred on the left side, with Alva on the right, in mirror fashion. A soft light streams in from the stained glass windows overhead. Olsen pointed out the murals painted by William Mackay, faithful to the medieval style of the French chapel, noting Mackay also created the Ming-inspired murals of the Chinese Tea House at the Marble House. She explained that Alva left detailed instructions for the care of the chapel, and she showed me the chair where Alva's hired caretaker once sat.

In 1936, just three years after Alva's death, the Vanderbilt children deeded the chapel over to Woodlawn Cemetery, restricting that there would be no future burials there. Thus, Woodlawn has been responsible since then for maintaining the place, just one of many private mausoleums dotting the leafy streets of the 400 acre cemetery. For the Partners in Preservation initiative, Woodlawn is asking funds to restore the exterior of the chapel, now darkened in many spaces due to time, pollution, and the elements. Behind the door of the chapel rests the cross that should be on top of the steeple. It was blown down in a storm a year and a half ago and needs repair. Following Alva's wishes, the cemetery frequently opens the Belmont mausoleum to the public.

interior, Belmont Memorial Chapel

While more visitors these days are expressing interest in Woodlawn and other cemeteries due to the current vogue for genealogy, the expense of caring for our departed relatives frequently falls on the cemetery. Olsen said we should all take interest in maintaining these places as part of our cultural heritage. She says that she likes to begin the conversation with the question, "When was the last time you went to visit your great grandfather's grave?"



View Belmont Memorial Chapel, Woodlawn Cemetery in a larger map  

Resources:
Official website for the Woodlawn Cemetery

Historic images from the Library of Congress -
• Alva E. Belmont. Photographer: Stadler Photographing Co., New York-Chicago. 1911. Records of the National Woman's Party.
• Alva Belmont's coffin being carried into St. Hubert's Chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery, New York. 1933 Jan. Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Images of the Belmont Memorial Chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 17, 2012. Thanks to Susan Olsen for sharing the history of the chapel and the work of the Woodlawn Cemetery.

Woodlawn Cemetery was one of 40 sites selected in 2012 for the Partners in Preservation initiative in New York City, a program that raises awareness of historic preservation by involving the public in distributing grants. 









Popular posts from this blog

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Visiting New York City Again on the First Day of Spring

  The first weekend of spring in New York City coincided with bright and pleasing weather. Blue skies and Blue Jays, Bald Eagles and brightened crowds greeted the new season, at least in my world. It may be a cliché to say something like “Hope is in the air,” but contrast this spring of 2021 with the one a year ago, the new mood is palpable. Last year during early spring, the city shut down, in caution and crisis, but this season feels like a resurrection, albeit still cautious. The Met Steps on Fifth Avenue Last spring, when many of the city’s residents feared going outside, many are at least partially vaccinated now. The numbers rise every day. I have been fully vaccinated for a month now, so I used the occasion to revisit New York City. I have been out and about in my neighborhood, but in terms of the public New York City, the one celebrated in tourist books and on this website, I have not ventured there much at all.  A Bald Eagle grasps a fish in its talons outside the Met Cloister

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Traversing Manhattan: An Afternoon Trip to the Battery and Back Again

  Wherein the vaccinated sightseer from Northern Manhattan travels to the southern end of the island by means of the express bus, the MTA subway, and the NYC ferry, with a little sauntering on foot In Battery Park, during the first blushes of spring in New York. View of One World Trade Center Residents of the far north and far south of Manhattan are the ones most keenly aware that they live on an island. The north end of the borough tapers to a relatively small area of land, bounded by the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. The land is hilly and green, with an old growth forest. The Battery sits on the southern end, a land where the geography is defined by the meeting of the East River, the Hudson River, and the vast New York Harbor. Manhattan stretches a little over 13 miles on the long side and just 2.3, more or less, at its width. On 42nd Street, approaching Grand Central Terminal. A resident of the hilly northern terrain may sometimes long

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

Walking on Snow

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk. A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale. An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway. Eastern Screech-Owl